Liverpool demolished Genk in the last matchday of this season’s UEFA Champions League 4-1. After getting a manic last-minute win against Aston Villa to protect their six-point lead in the Premier League ahead of Sunday’s crunch clash with Man City, they were looking to boost their chances of progression into the knockout rounds in Europe.
Genk came to Merseyside on the back of a disappointing 2-0 away loss to 12th place Eupen. With only a point gained after the first set of group matches and qualification unlikely, putting up a fight would be seen as respectable.
Judging by the weakened starting 11, there was no doubt that Klopp had an eye on that huge game against the reigning Premier League Champions. Senegalese forward Sadio Mané and chief creator Roberto Firmino were both placed on the bench, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Divock Origi taking their places respectively. This was in addition to James Milner filling in at left-back in absence of another rested player, Andrew Robertson.
Genk manager Felice Mazzù seemingly acknowledged that his team would cede a lot of possession and went to a more defensive 5-3-2 after playing 4-4-2 versus Eupen.
Liverpool build-up and attack
Klopp’s Liverpool has become synonymous with the intense and effective use of the 4-3-3 formation. The German has sporadically opted for a 4-2-3-1 double pivot but this system usually results in a loss of fluidity and a struggle to progress the ball.
In this case, the 4-3-3 was played as usual, but the inclusion of Naby Keita, and to a lesser extent Oxlade-Chamberlain, resulted in some unconventional build-up patterns not regularly seen with the Reds. The essence of this is that Keita seemingly preferred to drop alongside regular central defensive-midfielder Fabinho to pick the ball up of either centre-back. Factoring in Genk’s passive front two, the four men involved formed a square-like shape to always have a man free and thus bypass the first line of tepid pressure, as seen below.
This conservative build-up structure led to their teammates pushing forward, recognising there was a solid base behind them. The irregularity of having a double pivot when playing 4-3-3 was intensified by Georginio Wijnaldum joining the front three in possession. Additionally, it obliged the full-backs to move forward, although Wijnaldum joining the forward line meant that the normal space they’re accustomed to wasn’t there. This was unless the ball was on a specific side, a series of rotational movements then followed: Oxlade-Chamberlain dropped or Keita drove on with the ball at feet, the winger comes inside, and then the full-back progresses. Something similar happened for Liverpool’s opener, and in this instance, it was Keita who chose to advance.
In the final third this effectively created a 2-4-4. Wijnaldum’s positioning, to form a four-man attacking line, caused the five-man Genk defence problems. When the Liverpool attackers were all narrow against the three Genk centre-backs they had numerical superiority, meaning a wing-back had to tuck-in, or a midfielder drop in temporarily. As you would expect such movement, it opened up space for Liverpool’s renowned forward-thinking full-backs. Let’s look at the first goal again.
Origi draws two players, including the Genk wing-back, and Milner gets a yard of space, plays the ball across, and they score.
This diagram and in-game picture are a portrayal of the positions the players took up when there was significant attacking intent from the Reds.
As would be expected at a fortress like Anfield, Genk were wary of the Red’s attacking quality and cautiously sat deep. To counter this and draw them out, Klopp had his players play fluid roles. The perfect example was Oxlade-Chamberlain’s almost indefinable position.
He primarily played in the striker position, filling in for the rested Firmino, and this advanced area is where he got his goal from.
The 26-year-old was given access to roam. With his dribbling skills, it’s pretty reasonable to have expected him to start on the wing and play as more of an inside forward, making runs inside like Mohamed Salah loves to do. However, whilst the ex-Southampton player did make use of his dribbling ability, he mainly only ever utilised it when picking the ball up from deep – similar to Keita. In his heatmap, you can see how deep he got especially for a player meant to be playing in the forward three – in the line-up graphic he was indeed the designated CF.
Oxlade-Chamberlain had two other roles. He drifted wide to offer a passing lane, preventing the passer from getting isolated, or, going in between the lines, attracting Genk centre-backs for runners beyond – Firmino-style.
Genk’s style of play
Mazzù’s tactical plan here was heavily considerate of Liverpool’s full-backs. He may have taken inspiration from Man United’s strategy from a few weeks ago, trying to catch Liverpool on the counter.
He opted for two central strikers and told the players further back to launch it into the channels, attempting to get Mbwana Samatta or Junya Ito in one-on-one situations. Ito, to his credit, was pretty lively and it was clear to see he had the ability to go past people.
The directness of Genk’s attacking approach is evident in their passing stats. 24% of all passes attempted were long, with a 39% accuracy. The goalkeeper Gaetan Coucke also finished with 28 long balls attempted. For comparison, Alisson only went for 8.
A problem for Genk was the isolation of their front two, and the lack of strength/shielding. Out of those 28 long balls, only 8 were successful, with a poor 28.6% completion rate.
Here above, we can see substitute Dieumerci Ndongala has received the ball out wide and is facing up to Trent Alexander-Arnold. But the Congolese forward only has three visible options. Plus, they are in the cover shadow of Liverpool defenders and taking into account the time for the ball to travel, they’d be overwhelmed and lose possession.
When Liverpool were in possession and circulating the ball Genk had a 5-3-2 defensive structure – sitting in a mid-block. They did not press intensively or as a group. Understandably some Liverpool players were closed down quicker than others. Mazzù was particularly conscious of Alexander-Arnold’s crossing and when the homegrown talent got the ball to any significant distance in the Genk half with space ahead, the left wing-back Casper De Norre immediately got out to press and shut off any crossing opportunities.
In the example below Genk’s overall defensive structure is obvious, this time right wing-back Joakim Maehle is getting tight with Milner.
Overall the Belgian side defended well, the two goals only really came via unfortunate deflections creating disorganisation and excellent technical ability via Oxlade-Chamberlain – with Salah to set him up. Their resoluteness is reflected in their total of 39 clearances, an impressive 11 from middle CB Sébastien Dewaest on his own. Much of Liverpool’s playmaking comes from their full-backs and their brilliant crossing ability, but here they only registered a 17% cross accuracy rate.
Although Liverpool got the win here Klopp may be concerned with the performance and failure to win by a more comprehensive scoreline, as the Merseyside club totalled 27 shots in the end. Looking ahead to that enormous clash on Sunday a better, more clinical performance will be required to get the three points.
Genk gave a good account of themselves, even if in vain. Their UEFA Champions League campaign is over for another season, with qualification for the knockout rounds impossible with two matchdays left.
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